© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“While it is fashionable for jazz writers to pick out the relatively few "pure jazz" sides in the more commercially successful bands, using either the paucity or plenitude of such evidence to respectively condemn or praise their subject, it is a quite unrealistic approach and ultimately inaccurate. A discriminating historian cannot avoid looking at the totality of an artist's creativity; he must look at all facets of his work. And if we look at the James band's full recorded output in its first peak period (late 1941 through 1942), we discover not only a more balanced selection of its three repertory elements—ballad vocals, novelty vocals, and jazz instrumentals—but a considerable improvement in all three areas, especially in the quality of the jazz instrumentals.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
“James's own playing had lost none of its assurance; his solo work poured out of his horn—as it was to throughout his career—with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency. In a long and truly remarkable career as a trumpet player James hardly ever missed a note. He played extraordinarily well almost until the day he died, an astonishing achievement for a brass player.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
In addition to George T. Simon’s The Big Bands, the other invaluable reference for the big band/swing era is Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945.
Simon’s book emphasizes reportage, and well it should , after all he was there while it was happening and posting reports to magazines such as Metronome and to newspapers about developments in the big bands.
Schuller is a musician and his approach is more one of analysis and evaluation and his work includes many notations to explain what’s happening in the music itself that helps distinguish one big band from another.
Here’s his take on Harry James as we continue our expansive profile of the music of this great Jazz musician.
"It is probably difficult for most jazz aficionados to think of the late Harry James as a major jazz figure. And perhaps one is justified in considering his right for a place in the jazz pantheon a controversial and qualified one. But if one looks at the full life-long record and chooses not to remember only the period of his greatest public popularity—the early 1940s—then one discovers a musician who devoted the greater part of his career to the cause of jazz. For the truth is that, in its baldest outlines, his life was involved almost continuously with jazz, certainly in his early days with Ben Pollack and Goodman, but also later, though less in the limelight, as leader of his own band for nearly thirty-five years, featuring outstanding jazz soloists such as Willie Smith, Ray Sims, Corky Corcoran, Buddy Rich, Red Kelly, and Jack Perciful and hard-swinging progressive arrangements by Ray Conniff and (in later years) Neal Hefti and Ernie Wilkins—all with a minimum of commercial intrusions.
James was undoubtedly the most technically assured and prodigiously talented
white trumpet player of the late Swing Era and early postwar years, both as an improvising jazz and blues player and as a richly expressive ballad performer. He was, unlike many other Armstrong disciples, a creative musician, unwilling to merely imitate the master. Indeed, James extended Armstrong's melodic and rhythmic conception in two dramatically divergent and quite personal directions: the one as a brilliant, often brash virtuoso soloist equipped with unlimited technique, accuracy and endurance; the other as a romantic popular song balladeer, at times carrying Armstrong's melodic style to its ultimate commercial extreme.
Yet, one can only speculate why a fine jazz player like James felt that he could fulfill his band-leading ambitions only via the most commercial of routes. Perhaps he wanted to ensure financial success and stability for himself and his orchestra first, before devoting himself to more progressive forms of jazz. Or perhaps, deep down, he realized that his eclectic talents were not sufficient to create a new and deeply original style which could survive as, for example, that of Armstrong or Gillespie or Hawkins or Ellington.
In any case James's orchestra was from the very outset commercially oriented, in striking contrast to the excellent jazz credentials he had already garnered, not only in his years with Goodman but with a variety of small groups featuring variously a nucleus of Basie musicians in 1937 and 1938 (Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Walter Page, Jo Jones) or his 1939 Boogie Woogie Trio with Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons (hear James's fine blues trumpet on Home James), or with Teddy Wilson (Just a Mood) and Lionel Hampton (1938). With such numbers as the schmaltzy Chiribiribin, the empty virtuosity of Flight of the Bumble Bee, and the mercilessly pretentious pastiche, Concerto for Trumpet, James set his band on an entirely different path from, say, the one Krupa had chosen a year earlier. Even bona fide jazz pieces like King Porter Stomp, Two O'Clock Jump and Feet Draggin Blues were either cheapened (with the boogie-woogie intrusions on Two O'Clock) or listlessly, unswingingly performed (as on Feet Draggin). In any case, the "jazz" instrumental were hardly distinctive, being lesser imitations of the Goodman-via-Henderson manner, occasionally mildly "updated" by James's tenorman, Dave Matthews. It is possible—and has been so reported (by George Simon)—that James played a healthy sampling of "sensationally swinging" numbers on dance and ballroom dates, but certainly the recordings made for Brunswick between February and November 1939 do not indicate any such predilection.
The arrival of Frank Sinatra, to be replaced a half-year later by Dick Haymes (when Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey), may have tipped James's approach even more in a populist direction. Though Sinatra's big success came with Dorsey, there is no question that James had discovered a major singing and musical talent, and that his presence had a more than casual impact on his band's popularity. Of these early nine Sinatra sides All or Nothing at All is the most impressive, showing the then twenty-three-year-old singer as already the possessor of a rich, warm baritone voice with a relatively straight unembellished delivery. He also barely got through the long high F at the end of the song. A moderate commercial success, the record became a big hit a few years later when rere-leased by Columbia and when Sinatra was already firmly established as one of the top popular singers of the land, even threatening Bing Crosby in his number one position.
It is interesting to note that in these early recordings James is trying to be more crooningly "vocal" in his trumpet-playing than Sinatra in his singing; he abandons virtually all taste and standards in his emphasis on an exaggeratedly saccharine, cheap vibrato—something that undoubtedly impressed a musically illiterate audience, but which was technically the easiest thing to do and a gross aberration of both Armstrong's and the old classical cornet soloists' lyric style. (James knew this latter tradition well, for his father, who taught young Harry trumpet, was a conductor of traveling circus bands, where much of that earlier turn-of-the-century cornet-style survived well into the thirties and forties.)
After one year with the Varsity label, for whom James recorded a series of unimpressive, stiffly played sides and whose distribution was so poor in any case that the recordings would have had no impact, James returned to Columbia in early 1941. One of Columbia's producers, Morty Palitz, who had had some success with using woodwinds in recordings with Mildred Bailey and Eddie Sauter, as well as Alec Wilder's 1939-40 Octets, suggested that James add woodwinds and a string quartet. Harry opted for the strings, sensing that here his commercial hold on a larger audience could best be expanded. And to everyone's surprise—and to the jazz critics' utter dismay—James succeeded where others, like Shaw and Miller, had previously failed.
While James clung to a jazz approach—just barely—with such swing numbers as Strictly Instrumental, Record Session, Sharp as a Tack, Jeffries Blues, and Crazy Rhythm, the big successes were his absolutely non-jazz-related "hat trick" of recordings of Eli-Eli, Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee, and the old cornet-solo favorite, Carnival of Venice, as well as the crooning vocals of Dick Haymes enveloped in strings (like You Made Me Love You, My Silent Love). Oddly enough, these ballads were in their own way quite effective, the strings adding some contrasting color and, I suppose, for many casual listeners "a bit of class." But it was James's own playing, totally convincing and authoritative, that made these recordings popularly successful.
It wasn't the first time— nor the last—that an offering of questionable aesthetic taste would succeed with a large segment of the public by virtue of its irresistible combination of technical mastery and novelty of conception. For the fact remains that James's radiantly brassy tone, combined with an overbearing vibrato, was totally original and instantly recognizable.
No one had ever dared to go that far—even James's section-mate in the Goodman band, Ziggy Elman—and, on purely commercial terms, it is that kind of nervy authority, technical perfection, and unequivocal recognizability that succeeds. It succeeds because it is clearly identifiable, therefore precisely labelable and therefore, in turn, marketable. James had stumbled onto a powerful formula for success, knowing incidentally, whatever his inclinations as a jazz musician may have been, that to compete directly with Glenn Miller or Count Basie or Goodman was folly, and would not garner him "a place in the sun." The formula he chose turned out to be irresistible: a star instrumentalist, technically invincible, romantic ballad singers (Sinatra, Haymes, Helen Forrest), and heady arrangements using strings, all superimposed on the vestiges of a jazz orchestra.
If the formula had had considerable commercial success with Dick Haymes— incidentally a first-rate musician, masterful in his phrasing—it was to turn into an incredible bonanza when James acquired Helen Forrest, who left Goodman's employ abruptly in late 1941, as the band's singer. (Haymes left James around the same time, attaining even greater acclaim with both Goodman and Dorsey.) The point about Helen Forrest's success with James was not so much how well she sang—she always had done that—but how effectively the James orchestra and its arrangers supported her singing, enhancing it, and drawing from her many truly magical performances.
James was the first (except for Ellington) to exploit and capitalize fully on the presence of a band singer by creating special musical frameworks for that singing talent, tailor-made, so to speak, at the same time craftily exploiting the need during the tense wartime years for the comforting reassurance of sentimental ballads.
Previously, band singers simply got up and delivered their songs in whatever fashion their talent permitted—as I have said elsewhere, singing, as it were, in parallel to the band but not really with it or in it. (This was not true, to be sure, of a few of the major vocal artists, like Jimmy Rushing with Basie, or Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, or Mildred Bailey with Eddie Sauter.) "Boy" and "girl" singers were simply a necessary appurtenance of a dance band in a realm where crooned "love and moon-in-June" lyrics were deemed to be an absolute trade prerequisite.
James saw that a singer of Helen Forrest's potential could achieve much more than that, could in fact be a dominant force in the popular success of an orchestra, in effect a co-leader. Of course, James did not foresee how such a development would affect the future course of jazz. But the results were soon fully audible and visible: as other bands, especially Dorsey (with Sinatra) copied the formula, singers took over the popular music field, jazz as swing was more or less driven out—certainly as a leading force. In turn a new form of jazz, namely bop, primarily instrumental and represented by smaller combos was to take over. By the end of the decade the split between the instrumental and vocal factions of jazz was irreparable, and eventually it would lead to a further separation in the form of the rock phenomenon, again a primarily vocal form of popular music.
While it is fashionable for jazz writers to pick out the relatively few "pure jazz" sides in the more commercially successful bands, using either the paucity or plenitude of such evidence to respectively condemn or praise their subject, it is a quite unrealistic approach and ultimately inaccurate. A discriminating historian cannot avoid looking at the totality of an artist's creativity; he must look at all facets of his work. And if we look at the James band's full recorded output in its first peak period (late 1941 through 1942), we discover not only a more balanced selection of its three repertory elements—ballad vocals, novelty vocals, and jazz instrumentals—but a considerable improvement in all three areas, especially in the quality of the jazz instrumentals.
In such pieces as Strictly Instrumental (originally written by Edgar Battle for the Lunceford band), The Clipper, Crazy Rhythm, James's own Let Me Up, and especially The Mole, the band developed an interesting synthesis of the lyrical-vocal and swinging jazz. The link between the two tendencies was the string section, integrated at its best in a way that no other band (even Shaw, who certainly tried) had ever succeeded in doing. It was to become a formula much imitated in those war years, especially successfully by Sy Oliver and Tommy Dorsey.
In this way James found a new middle ground where strings and bona fide jazz instruments could coexist in friendly partnership. The results of this fusion were particularly effective on The Mole, where the strings seem to be no longer an intrusive element but rather one of the co-equal choirs of the orchestra. Particularly effective is the use of high floating violin harmonics, a device all but unknown to early jazz arrangers, in the final chorus Equally fetching is the superbly played muted trumpet quartet, an idea James had first developed when still in the Goodman band.
Just as the use of strings—and by mid-1942 a French horn—in a generally lyrical approach affected the way the James band played jazz in those years, so, too, conversely jazz in the form of swing often affected the treatment of ballads.
There were, of course, those outright lushly sentimental ballads like But Not for Me, I Had the Craziest Dream, and By The Sleepy Lagoon (the latter filching the entire introduction to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2). But there were also songs like I've Heard That Song Before, a fine Helen Forrest vocal, played with a bouncy "rockin' chair" beat and swing that very few, if any, white bands had as yet achieved (and certainly not in ballads), and which was a fine precursor of the broadly swinging beat and style of James's superb 1944 I’m Beginning To See the Light.
Another development worth noting is the gradually increased integration of James's solos into the overall framework or arrangement. Whereas James had begun his band-leading career by appropriating all the solo space he could— with a few exceptions, like Vido Musso's extended solos on Jeffries Blues—he had by early 1942 returned to a more modest policy. Listen to how beautifully James's solo on Crazy Rhythm, for example, is assimilated into the ensemble.
The two arrangers who managed this wide range of assignments for James in those years were Dave Matthews and Leroy Holmes. Matthews was a great admirer and student of Duke Ellington and brought some of the master's tone colors and voicings to the James band, notably on Let Me Up and I’m Beginning To See the Light. Notice how Matthews uses Ellington's old Mood Indigo trio of muted trumpet and trombone plus low-register clarinet in the former title, not this time in a sustained song-like theme, but in a jauntily moving jump/riff tune. The Duke-ish harmonization and voicing of the last eight bars of I’m Beginning are particularly fetching , as is Alan Reuss's guitar coda with its fade-away blues-ish single-note line and final chord in harmonics. I’m Beginning seems to me to attain the kind of admirable synthesis I spoke of earlier: it is a song, a vocal (sung well by Kitty Kallen), it uses strings (quite idiomatically), yet it is unquestionably a jazz performance.
Leroy Holmes composed and arranged such brilliant scores as Prince Charming and The Mole, well-made swing-riff tunes, smartly arranged, that did much to keep the jazz flame alive in James's band.
By the time the recording ban had run its course in 1944, James had revamped his personnel extensively; he had brought in Willie Smith and Corky Corcoran, the fine band pianist Arnold Ross and two superior rhythm section members, Alan Reuss and Ed Mihelich, a strong driving bass player who had already done wonders for the Krupa rhythm section. With the further addition of outstanding arranging talent in the persons of Johnny Thompson and Ray Conniff, the James band moved unqualifiedly into a leading position as one of the finest performing ensembles of the mid- and late-1940s, while perpetuating a harmonically, rhythmically advanced swing/dance-band style. Its singers—like Kitty Kallen, Ginnie Powell, and Buddy DeVito, all representing a new breed of vocalist who had been weaned on Anita O'Day, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra—continued the trend of a more instrumentalized type of singing, with at least an awareness of jazz as a strongly rhythmic language.
But above all the band concentrated in its repertory on a substantial amount of jazz instrumentals, mostly created by Ray Conniff, who had already contributed so importantly to Artie Shaw's 1944 band. Friar Rock, Easy, I've Never Forgotten, 9:20 Special, Tuxedo Junction, What Am I Gonna Do?, Moten Swing, Vine Street Blues are all striking examples of the kind of exuberant swing and blistering drive the James band could produce during this period.
James's own playing had lost none of its assurance; his solo work poured out of his horn—as it was to throughout his career—with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency. In a long and truly remarkable career as a trumpet player James hardly ever missed a note. He played extraordinarily well almost until the day he died, an astonishing achievement for a brass player. His brilliant bravura solo on Friar Rock is but one typical example of his extraordinary facility and flawless execution.
As I pointed out earlier, Harry James reverted increasingly in the ensuing years to a primarily jazz policy, albeit basically in what one might call a "progressive swing" idiom. In this respect James's career reverses the much more common pattern: tracing a gradual decline from high idealism (and even experimentalism) through various stages of compromise to commercial accommodation and ultimate artistic demise. James started at the other end; he sowed his commercial oats during his band's youthful years, achieving a security and fame early on which permitted him in later years to more or less play the kind of jazz-as-dance-music he knew best, always with an adequate measure of musical spontaneity and freedom, to keep his improvisatory and virtuosic skills well honed.
To his credit, James succumbed to a bop influence in his own playing only fleetingly, the Gillespie model being always a temptation for most trumpet players. In James's case these were minor flirtations that never deterred him from being his own man, instrumentally and creatively. Nor did he in the heyday years of bop, the late forties, like so many others turn his band into a bop ensemble. He had always admired Basie from his earliest days in New York, and it was perhaps inevitable that James's post-1950 bands were built upon the Basie model, especially since two of Basie's top arrangers, Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti, were responsible for most of the James book in the last three decades.
It is also significant that by the early 1950s James had been cured of his initial conspicuous reliance on singers, and that during this entire later period—with but a few exceptions to re-create revivals of earlier successes—James worked entirely without singers—and no strings!”
The following audio only file features Harry with his boogie woogie trio on Home James.